Nutrition Labels: How To Choose The Right Dancer Fuel

Maybe you have a competition this weekend. Possibly an audition, or an extra-long rehearsal. You know you’ll need to have snacks on hand for this all-day affair, preferably one that will give you energy and won’t feel heavy in your stomach whether you’re in a kick line or doing jetes across the stage. But when you get to the grocery store to stock up on this extra sustenance, products shouting everything from “Low Fat!” to “High in Protein!” to “Gluten Free!” stare back at you. How are you supposed to know what is truly good for you – and will benefit you most as a dancer?

Welcome to your guide to nutrition label reading.

This little label on the back or side of food products holds an abundance of useful information to help you get all the nutrients you need to dance and feel your best. The key is learning to understand what you’re reading on this label and how to apply it to your meals. So first off…

Where do I start?

Two women looking at food label

Photo courtesy US Department of Agriculture

Before you even glance at the numerical details of a food label, dietician Emily Harrison, who works with the Atlanta Ballet at The Centre for Dance Nutrition, says that the important thing to remember is that food is fuel and can give you an advantage or put you at a disadvantage in dancing, athletic activity, or even academically.

“I think when we read that food label, we’re educating ourselves on what is going to be best for our bodies,” Harrison says. “I think any time we’re honoring our body, when we’re recognizing that food used as healthy fuel source, then reading a label can be a really good way to figure out what’s the best thing for [you].”

With that in mind, Harrison recommends looking at the ingredients list before anything else. It can usually be found beneath the actual table of nutrition percentages.

“If the ingredient list is a whole paragraph, or if it is so long and there are a bunch of words on there that you don’t recognize as an actual food, then maybe you need to rethink eating it,” Harrison says.

Health coach and HT Chen and Dancers alum Joanie Johnson says she tells clients to look at the first ingredients and ask themselves if those ingredients are good for them.

“Ingredients are listed in the order of their amount in a food – the food is mostly made up of the ingredients that come first, and less of the ingredients that come last. If those first few ingredients aren’t good for you, or worse yet, chemicals instead of real food, don’t eat it!” Joanie says. She also notes not to be tricked by any of the buzzwords on the front of the package, such as “high in fiber” and “whole wheat.”

“Think of the “health claims” on packaged foods as commercials.  They are strictly there to entice you to buy the product.  It’s often the unhealthiest foods trying to convince you they are healthy.  A sugary cereal box is the perfect example.  They often say things like “high in fiber”, “whole wheat”, “packed full of vitamin___”.  When you read the nutritional label, you’ll find these things to be untruthful.  There are MANY loopholes when it comes to food labeling laws in the US.  Never trust anything in bold print.”

Take it to the top.

At the very top of the label, you’ll find the serving size, how many servings are in the container, and what many people tend to notice first: calories.

Calories, according to the FDA, are a measure of the amount of energy you get from a serving of a particular food. How many calories you take in of that specific food depends on your serving size. So if you want an accurate interpretation of how many calories you’re consuming while eating a certain food, keep in mind the amount you’re eating. If you have two servings, for example, you’ll need to double the amount of calories and all other nutrients.

While many people shy away from a food item when it appears high in calories, Harrison stresses that what matters is what is in those calories.

“Something without calories isn’t automatically better,” Harrison says, referencing certain sports drinks that have no calories but are full of artificial sweeteners. Instead of obsessing over the number of calories, she recommends considering the activity that you’re about to do.

“If you’re about to go off to another class and then you have a pointe class right afterward, having a granola bar that has 200 calories in it is no big deal. That’s light,” Harrison says. “But if you’ve just eaten a big lunch and you’re just kind of bored and snacking, 200 calories in gummy bears right before you’re about to go stand in the back of a rehearsal because you’re an understudy is obviously not what you need to be eating, where your calories need to be coming from. So calories are not an evil thing, but they’re tools to help our body have energy.”

Getting technical

"Spongebob Kids Breakfast Cereal" by Mike Mozart is licensed CC BY 2.0 [cropping, color alteration]

“Spongebob Kids Breakfast Cereal” by Mike Mozart is licensed CC BY 2.0 [cropping, color alteration]

As you progress down the chart, you’ll start seeing something on the right listed as % Daily Value. According to the American Heart Association, the % Daily Value (DV) tells you the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving, in relation to the recommended daily amount of each nutrient. These percentages are typically based on a 2,000 calorie diet (the asterisk sign after “Percent Daily Value” will lead you to a footnote at the bottom of the label that will tell you this little detail). Your recommended daily calorie consumption, however, depends on numerous factors, and may be more or less than 2,000.  Your age, gender, and your activity level – which, as a dancer, is especially important – all play a role in this magic number.

If you want a truly accurate calculation of the number of calories and the amount of each nutrient you should be taking in daily, Harrison encourages working with a registered dietician. “Different people have different needs…If you’re like, a nine year old boy, they’ve completely different iron needs than a twenty year old female who has already started menstruating.”

She also shares this piece of advice she learned from Dr. Dan Benardot, a sports dietician she trained under during graduate school: More than enough is not better than enough.

“What he means by that is when you’re getting over and above what your body needs, you’re not doing yourself any favors. It’s not better. So figuring out what your needs are as an individual is really what we need to be doing.”

For a general way to ensure you’re consuming a balance of nutrients, health coach Kathi Martuza, a former company member at Oregon Ballet Theatre, suggests planning your meals and properly dividing your plate between fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates and protein. See for more info.

Moving on…

Following the calorie and serving size, you’ll see these details for the items Americans tend to eat in adequate amounts (or in some cases, over consume): fat, cholesterol and sodium. While your body does need these things, experts recommend you limit your consumption. In this area, Martuza says to particularly avoid trans fat.

“The only thing to look at in terms of fat is really trans fat. Stay away from that. Otherwise, don’t freak out necessarily if there’s fat in there. And definitely I would say don’t look at the calories,” Martuza says, noting again how the ingredients list is the first place to look.

Next, you’ll find the total carbohydrate (including dietary fiber and sugar), protein and vitamin amounts. Dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron are all subcategories in this area and are among these particular items that the FDA says you should make sure to consume in adequate amounts. Again, it’s about where exactly all these nutrients come from – and about balance.


Martuza says that dancers have a tendency to avoid carbohydrates, when they actually need them.

“They don’t need carbohydrates in the form of cookies, muffins and bagels, necessarily, but healthy grains, vegetables, just carbohydrates in the right foods. But especially in whole grains is a great way to get carbohydrates… But there’s a little bit of a carbohydrate craze, low carb craze, definitely affecting the dance world. Dancers need protein for sure, but when staying away from carbohydrates they can get more protein than they actually need.”


Harrison supports Martuza’s observation about protein. She says it’s one thing a lot of her dancers tend to worry about, thinking the more protein, the better.

“Really, protein should only be 12 – 15 percent of all calories. People are way too obsessed about protein. So we know that there is a max, there’s a threshold, over which we can’t really use protein for building muscle or repairing tissue. So a protein bar, or a protein smoothie or a protein beverage that has more than 20 grams isn’t really doing you much good. So more than 20 grams in one amount at one time is excess. The body likes to take in somewhere between 12 and maybe 15 grams at a time.”


Harrison, Martuza and Johnson all noted how sugars often tend to have different names, such as high fructose corn syrup.

“It’s a processed type of sugar that our body doesn’t know how to properly digest and store. Other fancy names that mean sugar: dextrose, glucose, lactose, levulose, fructose, sorbitol, mannitol, malitol, xylitol,” Johnson says, though the list of code names doesn’t stop there. “Choose natural sugars instead: pure maple syrup, honey, molasses.”

Harrison also notes how some foods, such as raisins, may appear very high in sugar – but since that sugar is natural, it’s not something to be worried about.

“So not all sugars are created equal. Some of the sugars can actually be quite good for you,” Harrison says.

Last but not least…

Sometimes, if there is enough space on the label, there were will be further details along with the footnote that says, “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.” These details are the Daily Values. These values are measured in grams and remain exactly the same from product to product because they’re dietary recommendations for all Americans and not centered on a particular food. Based on information from public health experts, they are the recommended daily intakes of things like carbohydrates, fat and dietary fiber based on both a 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diet. The FDA does a good visual explanation of how Daily Values relate to Percent Daily Values here.

Who knew that a box full of nutrients and numbers could have so much detail behind it? Nutrition labels can be a great reference to help you guide your food choices, and with this knowledge you’ll be able to decipher one in no time. Ultimately, Harrison says to honor what your body is telling you.

“We dancers are so in tune with our bodies. It’s such a gift to be that in tune with your body,” says Harrison. “But we dancers are also kind of abusive to our bodies in a lot of ways. And I think you have to treat your body well; treat it with respect. And that means fueling it well. So bottom line, listen to your body.”

Elizabeth Semko
Elizabeth is a dance minor and journalism major at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. A dance student since the age of six, she has danced in the studio and on dance team, as well as at Radio City Music Hall as part of the Rockette Summer Intensive. She currently teaches at a studio in her college town.
Elizabeth Semko

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